Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks (Chapter 2)

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline —
it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons,
but at the very least you need a beer.
     — Frank Zappa


Thanksgiving was a big deal in our family. It was one of the few times throughout the year that the entire family — at least the Stamm side, my maternal grandfather’s — was together in one place. On that day, all of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, five in all, congregated with their families at my Aunt Helen’s home, where she lived with her husband and her mother, my great-grandmother. They had all grown up on the family farm near Bernville, named for Bern, Switzerland, which is where the original Stamm emigrated from in the early 1700s.

I honestly never knew when the farm was sold but none of the immediate family had lived there for quite some time, at least as far as I could tell. My great-grandfather died the day after I was born. My family loved to tell the story that once he was told my mother had given birth to male heir he could die happy, and he proceeded to just that … the very next day! It was oddly comforting to them it seemed, but it filled me with guilt as a child, as if I had somehow caused his death. After all, it was my birth that prompted his to choose to die. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the meaning of the story.

Looking back, them telling me the story seems almost cruel, but no one in the family treated kids the way children are coddled today. Today, as a society, we worry if things adults do are “appropriate for children.” The generation of my parents and before understood that it was an adult world and didn’t try to shield children from it but instead drew lessons about the world as we encountered them. It was very much a “children should be seen and not heard” sort of environment, though my relatives listened quite a bit. They just taught us from a very early age that our place was to be respectful.

There were instances I saw in my own and other families where some children were treated rather badly by this philosophy and it definitely seems like many of the recent changes in the way children are raised have been beneficial for the kids. But I also think sometimes that the pendulum has swung to far in the opposite direction. Too much protection and we create a society who can’t deal with conflict and whose skin is so thin it becomes offended at the slightest insult. This makes it increasingly difficult to talk about differences of opinion and truly learn from one another how to change them.

And the number of agendas that have been pushed using the “it’s for the children” gambit is one that drives me to drink. This plea for children’s welfare is a favorite tool these days of the neo-prohibitionist, whose sole aim is to remove alcohol from American society. It’s one thing, albeit selfishly strident, to want to return to Prohibition, but quite another to claim it’s to protect children. I find it quite dishonest to use children in that way.

My one relative who took this idea of children being in the background to extremes was my Aunt Helen’s husband, my Uncle Ray. Raymond was not a particularly thoughtful or well-read man. He cleaned carpets for a living his entire life and read only racy, pornographic novels. I never understood why he was with my aunt, who read everything voraciously — indeed taught me the joy of books — and was that rare woman with a university degree, in the sciences no less, in 1932. And he never spoke to the children … ever. In my entire life until the day he died when I was in my early twenties, my Uncle Ray had spoken to me maybe a dozen times. My mother told me later that he didn’t speak to her until after I was born, perhaps because that confirmed in his mind her entry into adulthood and therefore her finally being worthy of engaging in conversation. He was odd and mysterious, and more than a little frightening. When he did speak, it was so unusual that it carried enormous weight. I remember quite vividly his booming voice at around age six — when I still occasionally wet my bed — saying what were perhaps the first words he ever spoke to me. “When are you going to stop wetting the bed.” Needless to say, I stopped that very moment and never again needed the sheets changed or new pajamas in the middle of the night.

My Uncle Ray’s beer of choice was Schmidt’s, a Philadelphia beer that had been around since 1859, though Christian Schmidt doesn’t seem to be involved until 1861. The brewery flourished after Prohibition as C. Schmidt & Sons, not that anyone ever called it that. Beginning in the 1950s, Schmidt’s began buying up other area breweries until they merged with rival Ortlieb and lost their name in 1981, before finally closing down five years later.

In the early days, at Thanksgiving gatherings he always had his thick fingers wrapped around a brown bottle. In later Thanksgiving dinners, there would be cans. Cans with logos, cans with game birds, cans with sports teams, and who knows what else. One thing Schmidt’s did better than almost anyone else was make cans for the growing beer can collectors craze that really got going in the 1970s. They had a number of different series and collectors raced to “collect them all,” before that phrase lost all of its meaning by the sophisticated collectibles industry of more recent years.

My aunt and uncle’s house was slightly smaller even then my own, and the family always ate in two shifts. Half the family waited in the living room watching the parades while the other half ate. Then a hour or so later, in an elaborately staged dance, the two groups switched places. Except for the usually humongous turkey, two plates of every side dish were prepared and there were always a multiple array of desserts to choose from, so that both groups could eat their fill.

From an early age I loved turkey — and indeed still do — but especially my great-grandmother’s filling, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty whose recipe was a closely guarded family secret. Essentially, it’s mashed potatoes with bread crumbs, celery, onions, butter and other goodies added and then baked until it gets a crust on it. This was by far the biggest meal I ate all year and, looking back, may be the one with more varied dishes than any other meal I’ve yet eaten. There were green beans, peas, string beans, baked glazed carrots, creamed corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce and on and on. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be a full ham, as well. And that’s not including the desserts, which were plentiful and always home made.

But for many years, Thanksgiving became an awkward time when the meal ended. Gender roles were still pretty rigidly well-defined, and after dinner, every one of my male relatives waddled contentedly into the living room to watch football on the black and white television that sat uncomfortably in a corner of the room. This was still in the days when it had not yet reached its prominence as the center of a typical living room. In the early part of the Sixties — at least in my family — the television was still just a novelty, conversation and reading held sway over it, though perhaps sadly not for very much longer. So the Thanksgiving football as ritual was in its infancy, but it was one my family quickly adopted. The games themselves began in 1934, with a six-year hiatus during World War Two, then started up again in 1945. Since then, at least one football game has been played on Thanksgiving every year since. The first one to be televised was in 1962, when I was a precocious three.

While this was going on in the living room, every one of their female counterparts remained in the kitchen to clean up the massive piles of pots, pans and dishes. As a small child, I never knew quite where my place was supposed to be. After my mother and father split up, I spent almost of all of my time with women, whether my mom, grandmother, aunt or a babysitter. So the men in my family seemed a little alien to me and I don’t think I’d quite pieced together yet the fact that I would one day become one of them.

So it must have been that first televised Thanksgiving-day game that I watched with my male relatives. And all of them, at least as I remember it, were rooting for the Detroit Lions. It’s one of those vague snippets of memory, but I can all but see myself walking into the living room and bravely declaring that I was rooting for the other team, the Green Bay Packers. For years I believed they had won the game, too, although I’ve since disproved that (Detroit beat Green Bay by a convincing 26-14 margin). But I was hooked. To this day, I’ve never rooted for any other team. Whether it was because of this early, barely remembered act of rebellion or something more deeply rooted, I’ve always had a contrary streak in me. I’ve rarely chosen the easiest path or at least the same one as those around me. Some days that’s a good thing, some days it’s not.

And while that’s possibly why I initially gravitated toward craft beer after I moved to California in the mid-1980s, it was not the reason I stayed. For while Schmidt’s was a typical light pilsner-style beer, no different from scores of other regional brands, it suffered from the problem that the style still suffers from today. It doesn’t taste like much. It has almost no flavor, especially when cold. I can still picture the living room of my aunt and uncle’s house after the meal on Thanksgiving. Brown beer bottles littered every end table and coffee table. when a relative sat, transfixed on the football game. During commercials they’d gossip, discuss the game, and swig their beer with a relish I rarely say in them on other days. Having grown up mennonites on a farm, they usually displayed a quiet reserve that still unnerves me. Even the more talkative among them did not display emotions, not even the big ones like surprise, happiness or love. They did not laugh easily. They did not smirk or chuckle to themselves. And they did not cry. Through a multitude of funerals and numerous strokes of bad luck, I never saw one single man in my family cry. They didn’t declare themselves stoics, but I suspect they were in practice, at least. Life for them was calm and controlled. They rarely seemed unhappy, either, but how could you tell?

I suppose it was my mother’s influence and spending those early years surrounded by women that saved me from a similar disposition. Or perhaps it was never in me to be one of them. I have always been emotional, but maybe they were as children, too. I, on the other hand, never outgrew it. I did not put away childish things when I became a man, if indeed they would even now consider me one. The later events of life with my stepfather and what I perceived as a strict adherence to some unknown men’s code not to intervene estranged me from my family, one by one, and I can no longer remember a time when I honestly felt a part of their world.

But Thanksgiving was one of the few days I remember when absolutely nothing bad ever happened, a kind of sanctuary against the other 364 days of the year. After a while, I learned how to relax on that one day, letting go of the otherwise constant fear that gripped my later adolescence. And I even drank a few Schmidt’s myself.

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